Speeches never matter much, except when they do. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ first big speech to Congress as Democratic minority leader, delivered in the wee hours of Saturday morning, went viral over the weekend. Put to hip-hop beats, it has been viewed millions of times.

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The rhetorical heir to Barack Obama? J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press, File

The ascension of the House minority leader is not generally an occasion for important or memorable rhetoric. Yet this speech seemed to capture the far-flung diversity, ephemeral aspirations and democratic defiance of the Democratic Party like a July Fourth firefly trapped in a bottle. It was both a generational and a cultural coming out.

Jeffries may never match former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s political dominance of the House. But he has already eclipsed the most glaring and consistent weakness of her leadership: She was rarely a great messenger.

Jeffries might be. He was well prepared for his moment. The centerpiece of his speech was an alphabetic tour de force that could likely only have been pulled off by a Black politician with two feet planted firmly in popular culture. (Jeffries, a Brooklyn native, has delivered tributes to the late Notorious B.I.G. from the floor of the House on more than one occasion.) Yet even that may be too general a description. It’s doubtful that Barack Obama, the greatest Democratic speechmaker in more than a generation, would ever have ventured into such idiomatic or confrontational terrain.

Jeffries’ ABCs are worth repeating in full:

“House Democrats will always put: American values over autocracy. Benevolence over bigotry. The Constitution over the cult. Democracy over demagogues. Economic opportunity over extremism. Freedom over fascism. Governing over gaslighting. Hopefulness over hatred. Inclusion over isolation. Justice over judicial overreach. Knowledge over kangaroo courts. Liberty over limitation. Maturity over Mar-a-Lago. Normalcy over negativity. Opportunity over obstruction. People over politics. Quality of life issues over QAnon. Reason over racism. Substance over slander. Triumph over tyranny. Understanding over ugliness. Voting rights over voter suppression. Working families over the well-connected. Xennial over xenophobia. ‘Yes, we can’ over ‘you can’t do it.’ And zealous representation over a zero-sum confrontation.”


The political alphabet was at once a joyful recitation of Democratic values and a brutal drawing of contrasts with the party of MAGA. That Jeffries managed to combine the two with the same apparent ease, and personal warmth, with which he rose – essentially uncontested – to leadership in Pelosi’s wake implies skills that might be equal to the challenges of the 118th Congress and beyond.

Jeffries himself is an amalgamation of his party’s complexities. A former corporate lawyer at one of the nation’s most elite firms, he’s from a Brooklyn district combining renovated brownstones that fetch seven-figure prices and a large contingent of public housing occupied for generations by the persistently poor. It’s a fitting site for a political party that must meld the interests of the educated and affluent (win the suburbs!) with those of the urban poor and disenfranchised (deliver for the base!). The fright that MAGA extremism has put into many affluent white voters has made that balancing act appear easier than it is, and far easier than it will be if the Republican Party manages a return to democratic norms and values in the medium term.

In his speech, Jeffries made a point of citing his religious foundation in Brooklyn’s Cornerstone Baptist Church. He credibly cited Scripture (“let us not grow weary of doing good”), which is still good politics for a party identified with the rapidly growing secularism of the nation. One of Pelosi’s most effective tools was her full-throated liberal Catholicism, which she used as a powerful indictment of the amorality of Donald Trump and the bigotry of the religious right. When Pelosi said she prayed for Trump, it was a mark of personal expansiveness. But it was also understood that the former speaker was praying for the former president to overcome his sprawling corruption and brokenness. Jeffries can similarly cast a Christian glow over tolerance of difference, and intolerance of corruption.

In his own speech, given after Jeffries’, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy pledged to combat “woke indoctrination in our schools,” shorthand for ensuring that traditional status hierarchies are upheld; difficult American history is forcibly ignored, and empathy and tolerance are withheld from children targeted by MAGA. As a new leader, Jeffries will no doubt face many tough challenges in the months ahead. Drawing contrasts with House Republicans will not be among them.

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